Whitehall focus Mandarins broke rules on selection

15 Jul 04
Four government departments broke rules when making appointments to public bodies, the watchdog responsible has found.

16 July 2004

Four government departments broke rules when making appointments to public bodies, the watchdog responsible has found.

Civil servants at the culture, education, transport and environment departments allowed ministers to see lists of quango candidates before their interviews, Dame Rennie Fritchie, the commissioner for public appointments, said this week.

She was speaking at the launch of her annual report, which looks at how 2,800 posts on public bodies were filled.

Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport saw the names of candidates before a short list was drawn up. And at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs one candidate's name was cut from a short list after being viewed by a minister.

This is against the guidelines set out by Fritchie's office, which allows ministers to get involved in the process only at the beginning – by setting out the skills needed for the job – and at the end when choosing candidates.

Ministerial interference in public appointments could lead to further charges of 'cronyism' levelled against the government.

The rules were broken despite Fritchie having warned senior civil servants that they were acting against the guidelines.

She is calling on the rogue departments to fall in line to restore 'public confidence'. 'There is a principle… and the principle is openness and transparency. It's not open and transparent if things are taken into the minister without an independent adviser being readily available,' she said.

Fritchie wrote to the permanent secretaries at the departments concerned at the beginning of the year to warn them that what they were doing was wrong. But she conceded that some senior mandarins 'felt very strongly about this' issue and had not relented.

A Defra spokesman said: 'This problem has arisen due to a difference in interpretation of the code and, as with all such problems, we are working closely with Dame Rennie to mould a process that reflects the principles of ministerial responsibility and appointment on merit.'

Fritchie's report also found that the proportion of women appointed to the bodies had fallen to 35.6% from 39% the year before.

There was also a slight decrease in the proportion of people from ethnic minority backgrounds appointed, down from 8.9% in 2002/03 to 8.4% in 2003/04.

Call to overhaul 'secretive' honours system

The Commons' public administration select committee has attacked the honours system as 'secretive, over-complicated and out of date'.

In A matter of honour: reforming the honours system, published on July 13, the MPs call for the abolition of knighthoods and damehoods, which are 'redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class'.

They also call for the Order of the British Empire – seen as 'anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today's Britain' – to be replaced by an Order of British Excellence.

The use of honours as the tools of political management by Number 10 casts suspicion on the whole system, they say, although they found little, if any, evidence of 'serious corruption'.

'There was special concern about the use of honours as the "lubricant of the state" and some scepticism at the claims of those who run the system that it is entirely based on merit. A recurrent theme in submissions to us was the way in which the inclusion of "celebrity" names… was thought to bring the honours system into disrepute.'

The MPs propose changes to reduce the current 16 national honours to four and the setting up of a new Honours Commission, which would remove civil servants from the decision-making process.

PASC chair Tony Wright said: 'Honours are a way for the nation to recognise service and achievement. In our view, the system now needs radical and systematic reform, which our recommendations are designed to achieve.'

The government's own internal review of the honours system is expected to be published soon.

Shortage of cash and time deters non-execs

Better remuneration would ensure a wider variety of non-executive directors in the public sector, the Independent Commission on Good Governance in the Public Sector said this week.

Adrienne Fresko of the Office for Public Management – which, along with CIPFA, supports the work of the commission – said lack of awareness and a shortage of time and money prevented women from taking up roles as non-executive directors.

Fresko told the Committee on Standards in Public Life on July 13: 'There needs to be a much more positive effort to make [non-executive posts] more attractive, make it clear what the role is and provide induction training and support.'

Vernon Soare, CIPFA's policy and technical director, told the committee that non-executives in the public sector were not always clear about where to go for legal or financial advice.

'In the private sector there is clarity about where advice comes from or who is responsible for procuring advice, but there are a number of different models across the public sector,' he said.


Did you enjoy this article?